Recently, a parent confided in me that she’s worried about her son. She had invited her mother, who lives in another part of the country, to visit her family for the month of August. When she told her child that his grandmother, whom he hadn’t seen in over a year, was coming, she thought he’d be excited. Instead of receiving the information as happy news, he got upset, shouting, “You don’t care about me at all. I’m not vaccinated!”
This is an example of emotional flooding—a condition I’ve witnessed countless times in the decades I’ve been a school and family counselor. If you or your child have not experienced an episode of post-pandemic flooding, it’s possible you won’t. But with students back inside school buildings, it’s possible that the return to normalcy may bring up unforeseen thoughts and emotions in you or your child, triggering episodes of heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, immobilizing anxiety, after months of feeling fine.
What is emotional flooding—and what triggers it?
Imagine that your mind is a file cabinet, and every emotion you’ve been unable to fully process for the last year and a half went into a drawer. Now pretend someone comes up from behind, abruptly tipping your file cabinet forward so that all the drawers fly open, and every unresolved or unexamined feeling gets dumped out on to the floor. That’s what it feels like to experience emotional flooding.
The back-to-school experience always brings potential transition issues for children and their parents. Periods of adjustment are to be expected when faced with adopting new routines and meeting new people, especially this year when so many students have returned to in-person classrooms after an entire school year away. Changing expectations for mask wearing and social distancing could remind your child of the fear and uncertainty that brought about those protocols in the first place.
Unexpected events or surprising announcements have the power to ignite the stress response, also known as the fight-flight-freeze mechanism. The difference between flooding and more manageable stress experiences is one of intensity. Flooding happens quickly, often out of the blue, and it always overwhelms our sense of safety—even if we’re not truly in danger.
If you can predict it, you can prepare for it
While flooding is often associated with mental health vulnerabilities some adults and children regularly contend with—like social anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma—it can happen to anyone, at any time.
Given the unprecedented school experiences of the last two academic years, flooding is a predictable and increasingly likely response in children when they are met with change or the unexpected. Back to school mental health may take a hit.
I’m a believer in the mantra, if you can predict it, you can prepare for it. Having a conversation with your child about flooding won’t bring on an episode. On the contrary, previewing what intense emotions look and feel like, and then letting your child in on what to do if flooding occurs, normalizes our most basic human reaction to fear. In effect, when you talk to your child about it, you’re saying, “This happens to all of us at one time or another, and if it happens to you, you’ll be fine.”
Be sure to let your child know that, while you are always willing to involve them in problem-solving, if huge emotions show up, that won’t be the time to address issues. Together, agree to adopt the guiding principle: Feelings first, actions follow. Reassure them that once a sense of safety is restored, there will be ample opportunity to revisit the situation and what triggered the it.
Even with open dialogue, you will still need to be ready should your child experience emotional flooding. Here’s how:
1. Convey a sense of calm
As soon as it dawns on you that your child is caught in the riptide of flooding, the best way to help is to modify your own reactions. That involves less talking and directing, and more expressions of empathy for what’s happening to your child neurologically.
2. Act with compassion
No matter our age, when the stress response is activated, rational thought is unavailable to the person who is flooded. Until we feel safe, we’re not able to problem-solve effectively. Nor are we capable of fully explaining why we’ve become so upset in the first place. Without the ability to find perspective, there is no convincing a person in fight-flight-freeze that they are not in danger. The brain is telling the body the complete opposite.
As tempted as you may be to address any misbehavior that accompanies an episode of flooding in your child, hold that conversation for later. Because the experience is emotionally intense and physically overstimulating, coming on strong in the moment only makes the experience worse.
3. Mirror the behavior you’d like to see
If you need to speak at all during flooding, do so softly and reassuringly: “I hear you. I’m here. You’re okay.” By role modeling a calming presence, which includes relaxing your body with intention, you will be better able to mirror your response and help your child regulate their emotions.
Instead of insisting your child take a breath, whisper, “Let’s breathe” Better yet, take your own deep breaths and trust your child’s mirror neurons will match yours and join in.
Resist the urge to walk away until “they get themselves under control.” Instead, sit with your child. Open your arms to them, and ask quietly if they’d like a hug.
4. Promise to solve problems only after feelings of safety have been reestablished.
If your child resists your efforts to help them exit the state of flooding, be patient. Coming out of the stress response is a neurological process that takes time. If your stress-sensitive child insists you address their issue “right now,” go ahead and reassure them. “We will, once our minds and our bodies are calm.”
Stay aware and be proactive
Being back in school while still navigating pandemic risks is certain to cause an ongoing swirl of feelings—some joyful, some fearful, most of them heightened. Yet with a proactive, responsive approach, parents and children won’t be caught completely off guard by the intensity of emotions that may surface over the course of an unpredictable school year. By being aware and prepared, parents can guide their teens to face the next challenge with resilience.